Kirsten Dunst was always a mystery to me until the second season of Fargo came rolling along. Directed and written by Noah Hawley and scattershot-based on the Coen Brothers' masterpiece of the same name, Fargo has offered Dunst a chance to become sordidly iconic, playing the role of a dimwitted beautician's helper in a small town with a thwarted, off-kilter desire to "actualize" herself in the late 70s. That combination of anxiety, ambition, and stupidity is a beautiful thing in Dunst's performance so far, 2 episodes in. She captures an unhappy disco glow in almost every move she makes; there's a plastic/tragic neon flicker inside her eyes. Before, in other movies (especially the Spiderman ones), Dunst has seemed tentative, a little too victimized even when she wasn't being victimized, but in Fargo she is full-force, authentically vulnerable, but also alive to her own need not to be: she is in survival mode, and even more vibrant than that, she's grasping for some kind of meaning outside of what she's told she's supposed to feel. Jesse Plemons plays her sad-sack butcher-boy husband, and the scenes they have together have a worn-in/worn-out sadness to them and yet also feel vitally alive. He wants kids; she wants something else, some form of personhood (maybe feminism, maybe not) that will allow her to escape.
"Desperation" is the mode Dunst is in here, and she gives that desperation an incandescence while also fleshing it out ruthlessly. Her face is both kewpie-doll unnerving and moon-shaped sensual, her silvery blonde hair so tinsel-tight it could cut you. But it's the expressions and those intense glances Dunst is giving us that don't allow us to comfortably assign her character to cliché status. Dunst works her way out of that trap simply by going with it, becoming the desperation, understanding it in multiply tricky and invisible ways.
The director and writer Hawley does the same thing in Fargo: he takes situations and characters that seem hell-bent on being flagrantly and impossibly cornball and he invests in all of it a sort of intense belief, an energy that guides his camera-moves, the music, the scenarios, and everything else, toward kitsch and then out of it, into a realm of distinct, cinematic dreaminess, a heightened reality that gets into your way of seeing things before you have a chance to judge any of it. In fact, the first 2 episodes I've seen of this season of Fargo are the best movies I think I've seen all year -- on TV or at the movies. Hawley has built on the Coen brothers' legacy by elevating the homespun banality and blood-hot violence into a visual language that keeps repeating itself without getting boring, a staccato back and forth between what it means to be a good person and what it means to be an evil one, loving small-town life while hating living that way.
And then suddenly a UFO appears...